The presidency of the United Statesis not so much a job as it is an unspeakably daunting combination of roles: diplomat, lawyer, motivational speaker, military commander, and at times everything in between. But at its core, the presidency is about managing information—facing the endless data stream that is the United States government, and translating it into one high-stakes decision after another.
As Barack Obama prepares to do that work for four more years, he can take comfort in being able to tap some of the smartest people in the world to tell him what he needs to know. Figuring out how to actually distill and digest that information, however, is a different matter entirely, and one that everyone who has held the White House in modern times has struggled to deal with.
Obama, one of the most overtly cerebral presidents in recent history, came into office in 2008 with a clear idea about how he wanted the process to work. Taking his cue from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, he declared his intention to surround himself with a “team of rivals”: a group of people who, by design, would bring conflicting ideas—and conflicting information—to every problem.
Among those who study the nuts and bolts of the presidency, the “team of rivals” model has strong support: As they see it, a network of competing advisers ensures that the president knows all of his options, and that dissenting views and inconvenient facts aren’t systematically buried.
For Obama, building a team of rivals meant bringing former political opponents Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton into his inner circle and keeping Republican appointee Robert Gates as defense secretary. But four years into his administration, it seems the vision of deliberative governance the president carried with him into the White House has not been so easy to implement. What began as a plan to foster debate and intellectual competition, a strategy associated as much with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as with Lincoln, seems to have given way to a more standard approach—one centered around a group of like-minded colleagues who specialize in different kinds of policy.
You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month
Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.
- High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
- Convenient access across all of your devices
- Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
- Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
- Less than 25¢ a week